Monday, November 24, 2003

The gap between rich and poor blacks is smaller in Maryland than in almost any other state, according to the 2000 census.

The numbers reflect a relatively large black middle class, supported by good-paying, stable jobs in government, biotechnology and related industries, social scientists say. Their paychecks pave the way to more investment, more buying power and a better quality of life.

“The better off economically people are, the more stable their communities tend to be, so it tends to reduce all kinds of social problems if there’s a large middle class of whatever color,” said Patrick Feeney, a professor of sociology at Montgomery College in Rockville.

The method the Census Bureau and most economists use to calculate income disparity in a population is the “Gini coefficient,” developed in the early 20th century by Italian demographer Corrado Gini. It gives a number between 0 and 1.

A Gini of 0 for Maryland would mean that all households in the state had the same income; a Gini of 1 would represent the greatest income disparity, with all income concentrated in a single household.

Black households in Maryland scored a Gini of .428, the lowest of any state with a black population of at least 3 percent, except Alaska. The Maryland Gini score for all households was .430, while the national Gini score was .462.

Alaska squeaked into the rankings with a black population of 3.4 percent. Maryland’s population is 28 percent black, concentrated mainly in the Washington-Baltimore area.

Prince George’s County is among the wealthiest majority-black counties in the country, with an estimated average median household income of $54,176 in 2000, compared with $41,990 for all households nationally and $52,740 in Maryland.

The black middle class in Prince George’s is well established and flexing its economic muscle. The grand opening earlier this month of a new shopping center in Landover, the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, with a Borders bookstore and a Starbucks cafe, answered the demand for more upscale retailing in Prince George’s.

“I think it says that the business community has confidence in us,” County Executive Jack B. Johnson said.

Other Census figures suggest middle-class blacks also have confidence in themselves and their future earning power. Thousands of black families moved to the Baltimore and Washington suburbs between 1990 to 2000, helping to boost the populations of Prince George’s, Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, as well as those farther out.

The only place in Maryland that lost blacks in significant numbers was Baltimore, which registered a net loss of 17,000, according to the Census.

“I think one can assume that Maryland’s racial barriers are, in fact, eroding,” said Charles Christian, an urban social geographer at the University of Maryland at College Park.

He said blacks are buying more single-family homes in new suburban developments and in newly integrated communities, and purchasing more of the durable goods — such as cars — that characterize the suburban lifestyle.

Not everyone shares in the affluence, though. The Census Bureau estimates that 19.1 percent of Baltimore city’s population — many of them black families — lived in poverty in 2000, compared with 7.9 percent statewide.

“They would sneer at your statistics that Maryland has richer black folks than the rest of the nation,” said Alma Roberts of the Center for Poverty Solutions in Baltimore.

Barbara Blount Armstrong, interim executive director of the Baltimore-based Associated Black Charities Inc., said groups she works with report an increased need for food, shelter and health care as jobs disappear from the city.

“There are a lot of people that are staying just a paycheck away from the poorhouse,” she said.

The sociologists cautioned that while the low Gini score for Maryland blacks is encouraging, blacks still generally earn substantially less than whites. Nationally, the average black household income in 2002 was about $29,000, compared with about $42,000 for all races, according a Census Bureau report.

Even in Prince George’s County, there are pockets of poverty that no fancy shopping center will erase, said Donna Edwards, a leader of the Campaign to Reinvest in the Heart of Oxon Hill. She said the county needs more high-technology jobs.

“If we’re only producing those retail jobs, they will be short-lived and short-term opportunities,” she said. “It’s a good step forward, because clearly our county is lacking in any kind of services. But it can’t be the only step forward for real economic development in the county.”

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